In another strategic move that could very well pay off in maintaining some long-awaited continuity, the Washington Wizards made sure that Trevor Ariza spent the first day of the free agent negotiating period with two members of the organization. The hope was that center Marcin Gortat would’ve reached an agreement by the time Ariza met with Coach Randy Wittman and vice president of player programs Ed Tapscott, to send a clear message to the free agent swingman that the franchise is committed to spend to contend.
But even though Wittman and Tapscott had already left Ariza’s hotel suite in Marina Del Ray, Calif., before Gortat and the Wizards had settled on a five-year, $60-million pact, the duo had said enough to convince Ariza that he was wanted. And since Ariza had also expressed his affection for the Wizards, it didn’t take long before he told his agent, Rob Pelinka, to get on the phone and see if a deal could be worked out, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Though he is expected to be a hot commodity in free agency after his breakthrough season in Washington, Ariza gave Pelinka permission to try and work out a deal with the Wizards this week before engaging in serious discussions with other teams, a person with knowledge of the situation said.
“He’s kind of up in the air, but he loves D.C. for sure,” Wizards teamate Bradley Beal said of Ariza, with whom he recently had dinner in Los Angeles. “We had a successful season, and he’s a big reason why. He’s definitely considering coming back, and hopefully the front office can lure him back in so we can keep building on last season.”
But completing a deal is much more complicated than a mutual interest. Ariza turned 29 on Monday and is looking to cash in on a season in which he averaged 14.2 points, shot 40.7 percent from three-point range and became an indispensable part of the Wizards because of his competitiveness and behind-the-scenes leadership. The next contract Ariza signs will likely be the last big-money deal of his career and he has to decide if the familiarity and friendships in Washington outweigh potentially more lucrative offers elsewhere.
Among the teams believed to have Ariza on their radar are the Lakers, Clippers, Miami, Dallas, Utah, Cleveland and Phoenix.
The Wizards are confident that they can keep Ariza in the fold, no matter how long the process takes. And that process could take a while as multiple teams may consider Ariza a backup plan if their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James fall short. Until the Ariza situation is resolved, the Wizards don’t have plans to make any other significant moves.
Money is a huge factor in free agency but Ariza’s meeting with Wittman and Tapscott was more about tapping into the emotional side since financial terms weren’t discussed. They watched the United States-Belgium World Cup soccer game and transitioned into a conversation about basketball and his time in Washington.
The purpose of the meeting was to remind Ariza of his non-monetary value to the franchise while giving him the opportunity to actually grow with a team, something the 6-foot-8 forward has never had while bouncing through six teams in his first 10 seasons. John Wall has already let Ariza know about his desire to have his favorite safety valve trailer around to drop off passes for corner and above-the-arc three-pointers.
Gortat won’t be able to sign his deal with the Wizards until the league-wide moratorium on trades and free agent signings is lifted. Depending on Gortat’s first-year salary, the Wizards would have nearly $58 million committed to eight players with the salary cap expected to be set at around $63.2 million. The luxury tax penalty will be about $77 million.
The Wizards intend to take care of Ariza, who made $7.7 million last season, and don’t have financial limitations to keep their own player. But they do want to be responsible — especially since small forwards are easier to replace than a skilled big man such as Gortat. They also have more of a need to keep Ariza around after Martell Webster had surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back. Even if Webster was healthy, the Wizards would still want Ariza back in his No. 1 jersey.
Washington hopes that a deal can be worked out to ensure that the team has the same starting five in consecutive seasons for the first time since Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson were together for four straight seasons from 2006-07 to 2009-10 (of course, that group was rarely healthy together). Since then, the franchise had thrown out makeshift rosters with interchangeable parts and little success.
After a six-year slog through the lottery abyss, the Wizards made a long-awaited escape to playoff relevance, winning a playoff round for the first time since 2005. The Wizards want to see how far a team featuring, Wall, Beal, Nene, Gortat and Ariza can go for another full season. They improved markedly — in terms of team chemistry and overall play — as the season progressed and were just two victories away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
As with Gortat, Wizards also have the advantage of being able to offer Ariza five years — which could allow him to make more money but have a lower annual salary over the course of the deal — while other teams can only offer four. Ariza could also risk hitting the open market and realize that demand for his services might not match what he believes he’s worth.
Miami could make a run at Ariza but how much the Heat spends depends on how much James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are willing to accept. Ariza’s hometown Los Angeles Clippers have interest and a former teammate in Chris Paul, but could only acquire him by asking him to take a significant pay cut or through a sign-and-trade. A return to the Lakers would also be appealing, but Kobe Bryant is the only remaining player from the team that Ariza won a championship with in 2009.
Cleveland was considered an option but is reportedly pursuing Utah Jazz restricted free agent Gordon Hayward. Detroit, with his former coach Stan Van Gundy, and Houston, which signed him to his previous deal, are also expected to be in play. But in each case, Ariza would essentially be starting over again — which might not be too intimidating at the right price.
After the Wizards sent Wittman, senior vice president Tommy Sheppard and assistant Pat Sullivan to Poland to assist Gortat in his basketball camps, the 6-11 center didn’t consider leaving despite the Miami Heat reaching out to express interest. They are hoping the emotional play works again with Ariza. And, that the money will make him happy as well.